Ghosts in animated spaces

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday April 26, 2016
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Presence and evanescence would seem to lie somewhere near the heart of Ocean Vuong's poetry. Things come and go, appear and disappear. Across all the pages of his newly published Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press) there's a sense of spirits moving, in the words, in the shapes of the lines, in the spaces between the lines, among poems, freely, or as freely as ghostly presences can circumscribe their motions.

In what must figure as one of the most extraordinary of the poems, words appear in footnotes annotating two undrawn circles, or constellations, described by footnote numbers on the spaces where you might expect the words to be. A glance at the page reveals a rune, not a gimmick, for Vuong is not shy of words, just properly afraid of them, knowing as only a true poet could when they are subsidiary in the larger spaces of a particular form. That's the thing about Vuong's poems: they occupy and animate space.

That poem, "Seventh Circle of Earth," hangs fire (to comment grimly) off its epigraph, the Dallas Voice 's report: "On April 27, 2011, a gay couple, Michael Humphrey and Clayton Capshaw, was murdered by immolation in their home in Dallas, Texas." The two men and the poet speak in the footnotes. "It's funny. I always knew/I'd be warmest beside/my man./But don't laugh. Understand me/when I say I burn best/when crowned/with your scent: that earth-sweat/& Old Spice I seek out each night/Our faces blackening/in the photographs along the wall./Don't laugh./Each black petal/blasted/with what's left/of our laughter./Laughter ashed/to air/to honey to baby/darling/look. Look how happy we are/to be no one /& still American."

Lest the design of that poem be construed as Vuong playing trickster with the poetics, what's startling about his work overall is its directness of address to the reader, the lack of confusion about the meanings of the word difficulty, the burning desire to communicate. Other images fall like burnt paper into these poems, sources as varied as Greek mythology, a Rothko painting, a thin slice of Dickinson, a Vietnamese proverb (in Vietnamese, it means: "There is nothing that can compare to rice and fish. There is nothing that can compare to you [the mother] and me [the child].")

The second-generation offspring of an American soldier and a Vietnamese farmgirl, the Brooklyn-based Vuong was born into a rice-growing family outside Saigon and moved to Connecticut with them when he was two. He was 11 before he could read English and has called vernacular English his "destination," in which case he has decidedly arrived.

Wounds of a war he would not himself have seen, the one the Vietnamese have always rightly called "the American war," still appear. In the brilliantly entitled "Aubade with Burning City" (how many native English speakers would know this French-borrowed word, naming a poem or piece of music addressing the dawn?), he interleaves the story of a soldier (his grandfather?) taking leave of his Vietnamese girl with the lyrics of "White Christmas," the song Armed Forces Radio played to signal the evacuation of Americans from Saigon in flames. In the prose poem "Immigrant Haibun," which also gives an American voice, "When we left it, the city was still smoldering. Otherwise it was a perfect spring morning."

Already at 27, Vuong has a command of form that makes the excerpting of specific lines akin to artistic vandalism. In "Of Thee I Sing," he throws the voice of the woman in the car at JFK's assassination who pleads, "I'm not Jackie O yet." In "Into the Breach," it's Jeffery Dahmer. "The body was made soft/to keep us/from loneliness./You said that/as if the car were filling/with river water./To love another man is to leave no one behind to forgive me."

To glimpse the complex beauty Vuong finds in sexuality �" which sometimes includes lightness, at other times humor, as in the fragment "Note to self: If Orpheus were a woman I wouldn't be stuck down here," �" requires looking in all directions, including up and down. "Ocean, don't be afraid. The end of the road is so far ahead it is already behind us," he begins "Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong." "Ocean �" get up. The most beautiful part of your body is where it's headed. & remember, loneliness is still time spent with the world."

"My mother said I could be anything I wanted," he writes in "Thanksgiving 2006," "but I chose to live." To purloin the title of one of the finest poems, about the extreme tenuousness and tenderness of gay sex the straight world might judge anonymous, "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous." Doubtless, the most beautiful part of Ocean Vuong is where he's headed.